Investigation finds Ford and GM knew about climate change in the 1960s

Transportation, particularly personal vehicles, is responsible for a significant portion of the carbon emissions that pour into the atmosphere and contribute to human-caused climate change. We now know that consumer cars and trucks are responsible for as much as one-fifth of all emissions in the US. It didn't have to be this way. According to an investigation published by E&E News, American car manufacturing giants GM and Ford knew that car emissions contributed to climate change as early as the 1960s but continued to produce vehicles that guzzled fossil fuels for decades after the fact and even lobbied against regulatory requirements that would have improved fuel efficiency standards.

According to E&E News, scientists working at both Ford and GM found evidence that human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, was contributing to the rising global temperature. Both companies, which were considered to be part of the so-called Big Three automakers that accounted for nearly 90 percent of the US car market share at the time, were found to be "deeply and actively engaged" in studying how vehicles contribute to climate change, according to the investigation. In the case of GM, one scientist was even given audience with three high-level executives at the company to present findings. However, neither Ford nor GM made significant efforts to move away from fossil fuels despite their own research suggesting that car emissions produced a greenhouse effect that would warm the planet.

The investigation found that GM greenlit research from Ruth Annette Gabriel Reck into how its vehicles contributed to climate change in the 1960s, in part because the company was under the impression that aerosols could have a cooling effect that would counteract the warming effect of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Reck found exactly the opposite: aerosols contribute to the warming effect. Further studies, including climate modeling projects that showed the planet's temperature increasing as a result of carbon emissions in the earth's atmosphere, were run on computers at GM Research Labs.

Similar research was occurring at Ford around the same time. In 1955, the automaker hired a Canadian physicist named Gilbert Norman Plass who had published a number of papers on the climate, several that looked at the role carbon dioxide played in climate change. Plass continued to study this topic while at Ford, and ran climate models on the company's computers. While employed by Ford and managing the company's theoretical physics department, he wrote numerous articles in which he warned of climate change caused by CO2 emissions, particularly caused by burning fossil fuels. Despite the work occurring within Ford's own labs, it's unclear if the company's executives ever saw the research on climate change or took it seriously.

“We know that climate change is real and we are addressing it right now through meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions, investment in electric vehicles and sustainable manufacturing," a spokesperson for Ford tells Mic. "We have ambitious climate goals to move toward a carbon-neutral future while still delivering great vehicles and services to our customers.”

A spokesperson for GM told Mic, "Climate change is a global concern and the best way to remove automobile emissions from the environmental equation is an all-electric, zero emissions future on a national and global level. We have demonstrated our unwavering commitment to EVs and continue product development work on our future EV and AV portfolios (even during the Covid-19 pandemic)."

The findings in the E&E News investigation echo those of previous revelations that showed oil giant Exxon Mobile knew about the effects that burning fossil fuels had on the environment. Those findings, published by Inside Climate News, found that the company hid its internal findings and publicly questioned scientific research that concluded that burning fossil fuel contributes to climate change. Exxon has since been subject to a series of lawsuits accusing the company of deceiving the public.

Ford and GM, similarly, appear to have ignored research taking place within their own firms and took a public stance against initiatives that would have reduced reliance on fossil fuels. The companies were part of the Global Climate Coalition, a group that actively opposed efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An investigation published last year by The Guardian found that the companies were also involved in lobbying efforts to fight against fuel efficiency standards and other regulations that would have lessened reliance on fossil fuels.

These companies may now be ramping up their investment in electric vehicles and moving toward eco-friendly alternatives, but they had a chance to do that well before most of the world knew climate change was a pressing concern. They chose not to.